A Delta County woman trusted "the most precious life" to Dylan Huston when she left her newborn baby girl in his care in 2014.
He betrayed that trust, inflicting serious bodily injury on Jenabelle Carrera Ross, who was about two weeks old when she died. Tuesday, more than five years later, Huston was formally sentenced to 16 years in prison for child abuse causing serious bodily injury and criminally negligent homicide.
The sentence won't bring back Jenabelle, or even shed much light on what happened to her baby, the mother indicated in a written statement read into the record by Aimee English, victim services supervisor for the District Attorney's Office.
"What gets me through is that Jenabelle has a voice and I am here to forever let her be heard. Five-and-a-half years ago, my world changed. I trusted Dylan with the only precious life that I have ever been able to call my daughter, and he took her from me," the woman said, enumerating the days since she last touched the baby -- 1,966.
"Because of one little anger issue, one little mistake, one little whatever excuse he wants to call it, my child is now just a box on a shelf. Now, just a memory. Now, just a blanket I cry into at night."
Huston was alone with Jenabelle on Feb. 2, 2014. According to a 2015 indictment, the mother returned home to hear "popping sounds" coming from the baby's chest. She took her to the hospital in Delta, where it was determined Jenabelle was too fragile to be flown to Denver for treatment.
Instead, she went to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, where doctors found a 3-centimeter tear in her stomach. She died on Feb. 5, 2014.
The indictment says Jenabelle sustained fractured ribs, along with the stomach tear, and died of complications arising from it.
Investigators doubted Huston's varying explanations, including that the baby might have been hurt pre-birth, when her mother was in a car crash; been swaddled too tight, or injured when medical providers intubated her, the document also indicates.
Huston was originally indicted on a charge of child abuse causing death, a class-2 felony. His plea, entered last month, was to the amended charges above, which respectively are class-3 and class-5 felonies.
Additionally, Huston pleaded guilty in a 2014 burglary case in exchange for a 10-year sentence, to be served concurrently with the abuse and negligent homicide sentence.
Child abuse cases are challenging, almost always because investigators and prosecutors lack witnesses who can tell them what happened, other than the suspect, who has no incentive to do so, District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller said.
Huston's case is no exception and was also an investigatory challenge because law enforcement officers were not informed of the injuries until three days had passed, he said.
Further, there were some "inconsistent medical findings," a point defense attorney Daniel Lavrisha also later made.
It's important for the court and the public to understand prosecutors did not reach the plea deal or its terms "by throwing a dart at a dartboard and picking a number," Hotsenpiller said.
"It's tempting to ask if this is enough, if this is justice. I don't know if there's an actual answer to that," he said.
However, after more than five years, it is time for the case to be resolved, he also said.
"We will never know what actually happened," Hotsenpiller said.
The majority of medical professionals, including pathologists, concluded Jenabelle's injuries were due to significant, traumatic forces, he said.
"That's what (mother) was struggling with ... and will struggle with her entire life," Hotsenpiller said, adding there is not an objective, perfect answer about what happened to Jenabelle.
Lavrisha said that although doctors had agreed Jenabelle's injuries were the cause of death, they disagreed about other, "tangential" injuries "or the lack thereof" and one forensic pathologist listed the manner of death as "undetermined."
Although Huston was not Jenabelle's biological father, he was a "father figure" for the baby, Lavrisha said.
"Words are never enough to talk about the emotions everyone feels ... but Mr. Huston is sorrowful of the loss in this case," Lavrisha also said.
When it was his turn to speak, Huston said only: "I really don't have anything to say."
In imposing the agreed-upon sentence, District Judge Cory Jackson said there are "truly heartbreaking circumstances" at play. Huston did, however, plead guilty to serious crimes.
Jackson imposed 16 years for Jenabelle's death and 10 years for the 2014 burglary of a Paonia home, in which others had also been charged and sentenced to prison.
Huston is joint and severally liable for $47,000 in restitution in that case.
Huston was extremely cooperative with authorities who interviewed him about the burglary, said Kristen Hindman, his attorney in that case. Huston was contacted about it in South Dakota, where he had been indicted on firearms offenses. In that matter, he was in 2016 sentenced to 27 months in prison, concurrent to a sentence in a drug case, according to federal court documents.
Huston will in his Delta County cases receive 220 days of pre-sentence confinement credit off his sentence. His actual time spent in prison may be less than the amount imposed, owing to earned-time credit once inside and parole-eligibility factors.
The mother in her statement said she will never be the same, that Huston's actions left her hurt and "drowning" until the day she decided to forgive him.
"I forgave him for me, not him. For my peace of mind, for my healing. Because what I need to heal properly, he refuses to give us. I'll never fully know what happened to my child and I'll live the rest of my life with the nightmares of what she might have gone through."
Numbness, instead of anger, helps her through the day, she also said.
"Nothing, ever, will bring my child back. I, and many others, will always be broken. I will always struggle. ... I can't imagine how he sleeps at night. I pray that some day I get the answers I need. I pray that Dylan has a turnaround.
" ... Nothing, ever, will make my child taking her last breaths in my arms any easier. Not this sentence, and not his judgment day later before God. But at least it is a start."
The woman concluded her statement by thanking the DA's Office, judge, victim advocates and medical personnel involved in the case.
"If it weren't for you all, we would never have the little piece of closure that we are getting today. It's not what we hoped for, but it's more than we had those long five-and-a-half years ago," she wrote.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.